It may be a cliché
to call a singer unique, but Brigitte
Fassbaender was the genuine article.
What an unusual, distinctive voice she
had - instantly recognisable for its
agility in the lower ranges, its richness
of colour and timbre. But above all
her musicianship was acute. She brought
to everything she sang a profound intelligence.
Sadly her career was relatively short
for, as her voice deepened and grew
even more beautiful, the repertoire
for her voice type did not keep up.
She had the courage to challenge preconceptions
about song, taking on masterpieces like
Winterreise and Kindertotenlieder,
which many women dare not tackle, and
she had the vocal range to make them
her own. This recording, of a live recital
at Salzburg in 1977 shows her in the
full bloom of youth. It was a performance
that catapulted her into prominence.
She is a revered role model for younger
singers, particularly altos and darker
mezzos. This is a chance to hear her
when she was on her way into greatness.
The programme is a
mixed selection of songs by Schumann,
many taken out of their familiar settings
in collections. From the moment Fassbaender
launched into Aufträge,
the audience must have perked up, remarking
how assuredly she negotiated the heady,
faced paced lines. Erik Werba, a master
performer gave no quarter. His attack
was sharp and precise, speeding along
relentlessly. She was easily his match,
fearlessly negotiating the trickier
passages with no loss of poise. Hardly
had listeners time to catch their breath
when she produced an unusually mature,
tender Der Nußbaum.
But what would really
have stunned the audience was her rendition
of Frauenliebe und leben. This
cycle is much maligned because it portrays
a woman happily accepting that her identity
will be shaped by a man. It's hopelessly
romantic; not at all in tune with feminist
ideals. But Fassbaender is no mindless
Stepford Wife. Her interpretation is
firm and clear-eyed, with no trills
or decoration. The conviction with which
she sings portrays real dignity and
depth of feeling - this is a woman who
knows herself and the power of love.
Kathleen Ferrier, no wimp herself, is
known to have sung Du Ring an meinem
Finger coyly looking at her ring
finger, with endearing charm. Fassbaender's
protagonist, however, is erotic and
strong, whose charm comes from her own
self respect. To this day, Fassbaender's
interpretations of this cycle are an
antidote to the assumption that it is
merely sentimentality and submissiveness.
If it still stuns us today, the audience
thirty years ago must have been amazed
- the applause is captured with full
random Lenau and Heine settings is the
still seldom heard cycle Gedichte
der Königin Maria Stuart. What
intelligence put this and Frauenliebe
und leben together! This cycle,
too, follows a woman from youth to death,
but in very different circumstances.
Maria Stuart had little choice in her
destiny but faced her fate with courage.
Each song is sparsely set, with little
pianistic elaboration. It is up to the
singer to provide the drama. Fassbaender
again delivers, with conviction and
is a little unsteady in classics like
Mit Myrthen und Rosen where she
forces herself slightly on phrases like
"wenn ich selber im Grab", and later
in Ein Jungling liebt ein Mädchen
where she pushes her voice too high.
She's back on top form in the two Zigeunerliedchen
with their defiant gypsy flourishes.
Werba is a wonderful partner, his affirmative
playing making no compromise with the
youth of his singer. The interplay between
pianist and voice is beautifully showcased
in dialogues like "Ich sitze und sinne,
und sinne, und träume". Fassbaender
sound extremely lithe and fresh, and
Werba takes the song into its famous
postlude with grace. Again, the dialogues
in Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht
are good examples of partnership.
This being a live recital,
there's a lot of applause, made more
extreme because there are so many different
works. Before the encore, Brahms’ Trennung,
there is a slight but noticeable cut,
so it would probably be a choice between
applause and cuts. The applause at least
recreates the sense of a historic occasion.
No texts are included, but this is again
hardly a problem since this is such
well known repertoire.